Don Nielsen underscores the critical role of teachers in his book, Every School: “Quality teaching yields quality learning for students.” The enormous influence of teachers on a range of student outcomes has become even more clear in the last decade—an influence only slightly less than that of parents. Yet with the extensive variability in teacher quality within schools, it’s not easy to provide students with access to high-quality teachers.
So how do we produce and maintain high-quality teachers for public schools? Three issues are paramount: selection and preparation, placement and working conditions, and compensation for teachers.
As Nielsen argues, “Professionals in areas of law, medicine, engineering, etc., are carefully selected prior to being accepted into a college program. They then go through extensive educational training followed by on-the-job training. New lawyers come into law firms and work directly under a partner or other experienced lawyer. Doctors graduate from medical school and serve an extensive internship prior to practicing medicine on their own.” In other words, in each case, the individual is carefully selected (only the best and brightest are accepted) and receives extensive training beyond the classroom to prove they are qualified before being allowed to practice.
However, with teachers it is not done this way. We have it all wrong and we should follow the success pattern of other professions. The elimination of teacher certification laws would be a step in the right direction, as we have previously written about.
As for placement and working conditions, we must consider Nielsen’s argument that “seldom will a new teacher be given a mentor or extensive teaching materials such as lesson plans, or provided with useful information from the prior teacher who taught in that classroom. Also, a teacher is generally given minimal, if any, information about the learning readiness of her incoming students. Thus, in many cases, a new teacher must “reinvent the wheel” when embarking upon his or her teaching career.”
As with doctors and engineers, teachers should initially work with expert teachers to enhance their skills. As Nielsen states, “A doctor does not come out of medical school ready to perform major surgery. That skill is learned over several years while being guided by a skilled surgeon.”
Teacher compensation is a final issue to address. Teachers’ compensation comes in two types, both of which we have written about: base compensation and incentive compensation. In almost all states, however, nothing in the compensation system rewards teaching excellence. Teachers should be paid on their ability to educate effectively.
One other thing to consider is that some teachers go into the profession because of the ability to have summers off. For Nielsen this issue is quite simple, “Recognizing that [some teachers want summers off] suggests we should think about hiring teachers under different annual contracts. For example, teachers could choose to work for nine months, ten months or eleven months.” Another option that Nielsen suggests is to “increase the length of the school year to be more similar to other developed nations. Moving to a 200-day school year would give teachers an immediate 11% raise.”
Clearly there are numerous issues that need to be addressed to improve the teaching profession. As Nielsen summarizes, “Today, there are thousands of wonderfully qualified people in the teaching profession… We owe it to them, and to those who will follow, to treat them and compensate them like the professionals they are. Teaching is perhaps our most vital profession, but we are not devoting the time or money required to make the profession all it needs to be.”